The Taste Is Back

Sichuan peppercorns are again on store shelves and ready to be experimented with.

photo: Kristin Gonzales

Sichuan peppercorns, banned from import from China for a few decades, are back on retail shelves. Once again, we can enjoy the peppercorns’ mouth-tingling sensation and lemony taste.

In 1968, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Adminis-tration restricted the import of peppercorns, because they harbored a citrus canker, a bacterial disease that could harm citrus crops in the United States. It wasn’t until 2002 that the ban was strictly enforced, and Sichuan peppercorns became difficult to find even in the back rooms of Chinatown retailers. In 2005, the ban was lifted, as long as the peppercorns were first exposed to 160-degree heat to kill the bacteria.

Zanthoxylum simulans is the scientific name for Sichuan peppercorns, which are not really peppercorns at all, and are not related to chili peppers. They are tiny, reddish-brown berries that come from the prickly ash tree, also known as fagara. When you bite into one of these berries, your mouth and tongue will begin to numb and you will experience a distinctive, citrus-like flavor and a unique aroma.

Huajiao, meaning “flower pepper,” is the Chinese name for Sichuan peppercorn. In the Sichuan province, where it originates, it is an essential ingredient in several dishes, such as ma po tofu, and is used in numerous chicken and pork dishes. It is not a spice used abundantly, but rather as an underlying seasoning in many dishes. It is one of China’s oldest condiments, and preceded the arrival of black pepper.

Sichuan peppercorns are used for creating a traditional hot pot. photo: Brett Wagner

When using Sichuan peppercorns, first toast them in a clean, dry skillet over medium to low heat to bring out their aroma and flavor. Crush or grind them before adding them to recipes or using as a condiment. Store the peppercorns in an airtight jar away from heat and light. Left whole, they will last for a long time, but once ground, they quickly lose their fragrance and flavor.

A close cousin of the Sichuan peppercorn is sansho, a spice used in Japanese cookery. Its leaves, kinome, are used to garnish soups, salads and sauces. Sansho is usually available in ground form, though in Japan, whole berries, preserved in salt or soy sauce, are available. Sansho is one of the seven spices in shichimi togarashi or seven-spice pepper blend, widely used in a number of preparations and as a condiment.

Sichuan peppercorns are readily available in stores. If you’re celebrating the Year of the Pig, which begins on Feb. 18, pick up a package and make some Sichuan Pepper Salt, perfect for dipping a morsel of crisp roast pig.

Sichuan Pepper Salt

Measure equal portions of Sichuan peppercorns and kosher salt into a small skillet. Place skillet over medium heat and gently toast until fragrant. Peppercorns will smoke; be careful that they do not get scorched. Remove from heat, cool, then grind to a powder in a spice grinder.

Use Sichuan Pepper Salt as a dry rub to season a chicken or duck before roasting it, or use it to accompany steamed poultry. You can serve as a dip for fried foods to cut the oiliness, or stir-fry unpeeled shrimp with the mixture, adding a bit of sugar, minced garlic, ginger, green onions and chili pepper. Or, sprinkle some onto buttered corn on the cob.